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The recipient was a former patient who became a close friend
Madison, Wis. – For almost as long as Dr. Arjang “Aji” Djamali has been caring for patients, he has wanted to donate one of his kidneys to a person in need of a transplant.
On June 29, 2022, he finally got the chance.
This dream was born many years ago during his medical training in France under the mentorship of a transplant nephrologist (kidney specialist) he admired. Djamali’s desire to become a kidney donor continued even as he became a transplant nephrologist himself at UW Health, while also serving as chief of the division of nephrology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.
In 2015 his journey to become a kidney donor started in earnest when he met John Jartz.
Jartz had recently been diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, an inherited disorder in which clusters of cysts on the kidneys cause them to enlarge and eventually stop working.
The disease usually requires dialysis, but patients can benefit greatly from a kidney transplant. Jartz and his wife Kathy began to fervently research the condition and search for renowned transplant centers and nephrologists. This led them to the UW Health Transplant Center — and a new friend.
Jartz, now living in Barrington Hills in northern Illinois, grew up in Clintonville, Wis., about 40 miles west of Green Bay, so he was thrilled to return to Wisconsin and find a caring and expert transplant center in his home state. He was also impressed with his physician, Djamali.
“We connected right away,” Jartz said. “You could tell he really cares about his patients, but we also had a lot in common. We shared a love for travel and bad jokes. I actually looked forward to my appointments with him, which isn’t usually the case when you’re talking about managing a disease like mine.”
Over the next two years, the two saw each other during clinic appointments, talking not only about Jartz’s care but also sharing personal stories. While Djamali had become very close to Jartz he felt his primary care should be transferred to Dr. Gauri Bhutani, a nephrologist at UW Health, who specializes in polycystic kidney disease. Djamali stayed in touch and up to date on Jartz’s condition.
By 2019, it was clear that Jartz needed a kidney transplant. He knew that studies have shown patients who receive kidneys from living donors have better outcomes than those who receive kidneys from deceased donors. It would also allow him to receive the transplant before dialysis would be necessary, so he began his search for a living donor. Ideally, he needed a donor with his rare blood Type B, though kidney donations do not need to come from a person with the same blood type.
At the end of 2021, Djamali had to let Jartz know he was leaving UW Health to lead the department of medicine at Maine Medical Center. The friends met for a meal to say goodbye, a difficult conversation given how close they had become. Then, Djamali told Jartz he thought he knew someone who could be his donor.
“I said, ‘It’s me,’” Djamali said. “John was speechless. We went through the process of evaluating our compatibility and I was almost a perfect match for him.”
The matching is really important for how long the kidney will work, according to Dr. Josh Mezrich, professor of surgery at UW School of Medicine and Public Health, and Djamali’s transplant surgeon and former colleague at UW Health.
“Aji is a healthy guy and he’s lived a healthy lifestyle," Mezrich said. "I would expect this kidney to last many years, hopefully for the rest of John’s life.”
On the morning of June 29, Djamali’s right kidney was removed through a small incision using a laparoscope, and Dr. Dixon Kaufman, director of the UW Health Transplant Center, transplanted the kidney into Jartz. It immediately began to work.
Djamali is thrilled to finally have been able to share this lifesaving gift and is making the transplant public to inspire others to give the gift of life, he said.
“Ever since I was in medical school studying nephrology, I have wanted to walk the walk and make a difference in the life of someone with kidney disease,” Djamali said. “Living kidney donation saves lives, and I hope my experience serves as an example for others.”
Even though the two friends no longer live as close to each other as they once did, they both say they are looking forward to more shared years, shared stories and shared meals.